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Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession by Alison Weir

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RATING: 3/5

BLURB: “Fresh from the palaces of Burgundy and France, Anne draws attention at the English court, embracing the play of courtly love. But when the King commands, nothing is ever a game. Anne has a spirit worthy of a crown – and the crown is what she seeks. At any price”

REVIEW: I am a huge fan of Alison Weir, and have been to see her give lectures on several occasions; I even have a signed copy of my favourite one of her books, ‘The Lady in the Tower’, a non-fiction book on Anne’s downfall. I have spoken to her about my research and writing ambitions, and she is genuinely a lovely woman. I am also a big Anne Boleyn fan, having written my undergraduate dissertation on how she was portrayed by Catholics and Protestants during the reign of her daughter, Elizabeth I – she is also now forming a large part of my Masters dissertation on how Henry VIII manipulated the treason laws on his descent into tyranny. My interest in Anne means that I am always on the lookout for new books about her, so I was very excited to read this book, the second in Weir’s collection of historical fiction novels from the perspective of Henry VIII’s six wives.

The book was incredibly well-written, as Weir’s always are. It was engaging and considering it amounts to over 500 pages, I read it quickly as I found it difficult to put down. I found Weir’s portrayal of Anne particularly compelling, as it very much fit with my own perspective on what Anne was like as a woman, and what her motivations were for marrying Henry. Weir has Anne marry him not for love, but for her own ambition, although her love for Henry begins to grow throughout their courtship, leading her to eventually become jealous of his relationships with other women and thereby slowly turning him against her. This is very much how I have always seen their relationship, so it was refreshing to read of a historical ficiton point of view that still paints Anne as a good person, motivated by her religious and radical beliefs just as much by ambition, and keen to do good despite lacking popular support; usually, if Anne is portrayed as ambitious, she is often also depicted cruelly. The scenes regarding Anne’s downfall, particularly the final few pages that deal with her execution, are extremely beautifully written and very emotional, allowing the reader to experience the horrific moment of the execution through Anne’s eyes. The sheer amount of historical research was evident, and where many historians tend to skim over writing about politics, for fear of losing the interest of the reader, Weir makes sure the reader is always aware of the political, religious and international context in which the events are taking place. She also uses phrases in the dialogue that have clearly been lifted and adapted from primary texts of the period, which adds an aspect of authenticity.

I loved the book for all of these reasons. I did, however, have two main issues with the novel that has caused me to give it a lower rating. Tbe more minor one of these was the idea of Anne’s secret love for Henry Norris, and even this alone would not have caused me to enjoy the book any less – I just don’t believe that this was a factor in Anne’s time as Queen or, indeed, in her downfall. But Weir explains her choice to write this in the author’s note, and I understand her use of the evidence for artistic licence and can see how, in light of writing the novel, she has shaped the evidence to fit this conclusion; it did add to the novel, and therefore I enjoyed it. My main problem was the way in which Weir chose to portray George Boleyn.

George Boleyn is one of my particular areas of interest and speciality. I am in the very slow process of writing a book on him myself; he also forms a large part of my Masters dissertation, which I am currently writing, and has been a fascination of mine for several years. I have looked at him in depth and, although I acknowledge that he had many flaws, namely his pride and ambition, I admit that as a historical figure I am attracted to him, and wish that he was more widely known. A poem by a Spanish author once accused George of being a rapist. This is a theme that Weir has chosen to use and run with, and she has George confess to Anne that he has ‘forced widows and deflowered maidens’,  a line taken directly from this poem. Yet, in her non-fiction work, Weir cites a poem by the same Spanish author, which accused Anne of being guilty in her adultery and acting as a whore with many men, and states that it is an unreliable piece of evidence. The poetry was written from a point of view which would have been extremely hostile to Anne and the Boleyn family as a whole, coming from both a Catholic perspective and one which would have supported Katherine of Aragon and the Princess Mary, seeing Anne and her daughter as nothing more than a concubine and a bastard. I have always agreed with this assessment of the poem being unreliable, and do not understand how Weir could say this herself and then use a poem by the same author as evidence for writing George as a rapist. The evidence is flimsy at best, and although I appreciate that he has been dead for several hundred years, I feel this is a strong and unfair accusation to make, and as one that has also been mistakenly portrayed in the TV drama ‘The Tudors’, may end up being all that people who focus only on popular fiction end up believing, thereby damaging George’s reputation completely. Weir also has George involved in the poisoning of Bishop Fisher, a rumour which was spread about at the time and one which, with the use of artistic licence, I can understand her using although I may not agree. What I cannot support, however, is her writing that George also poisoned Katherine of Aragon, when it is known full well that she died from cancer. Although I acknowledge the fact that I am protective of George and the way he is portrayed, and therefore am biased, I do believe it is wrong to write of someone as a rapist when the evidence is unreliable, even when taking artistic licence into consideration.

Overall, I would recommend the book very highly to fans of Anne, as I enjoyed the way she was written.

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Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen by Alison Weir

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “A Spanish Princess. Raised to be modest, obedient, and devout. Destined to be an English Queen. Six weeks from home across treacherous seas, everything is different: the language, the food, the weather. And for her there is no comfort in any of it. At sixteen years old, Catalina is alone among strangers. She misses her mother. She mourns her lost brother. She cannot trust even those assigned to her protection. Katherine of Aragon, the first of Henry’s Queens. Her story.”

REVIEW: This is the first in what will eventually be a full series of six novels, all penned by Alison Weir and each novel focusing on one of Henry VIII’s six wives. As a huge fan of Weir I have been eagerly anticipating the beginning of this series, and was even lucky enough to attend the book launch for this first novel at Foyles bookshop in central London, where I had my copy signed by Weir herself. Weir is clearly fond of Katherine as a historical figure, and even named her daughter after her, and this allows her to portray Katherine with the empathy that she deserves as a woman of rare bravery, dignity and faith even in the most terrifying of situations. As an avid admirer of Anne Boleyn – I recently wrote my undergraduate dissertation on how she was portrayed in religious texts during the reign of her daughter, Elizabeth I – many people might expect me to dislike Katherine, or at the very least feel indifferent towards her.

Yet, I have always admired Katherine for the qualities I have just mentioned and for many more, and I enjoyed this book all the more because Weir allowed these qualities of Katherine’s to shine through. Katherine was not a weak and feeble woman who stepped meekly aside when Henry grew tired of her; she was an intelligent, passionate woman who fought fiercely for the rights of herself and her daughter Mary even once she was no longer the King’s wife, and all the while was gracious and warm to those around her, keeping true to her deep Christian faith.

The novel begins with the final part of Katherine’s – then known as Catalina – journey, and her arrival in England to wed the young Prince Arthur, heir to the English throne. But as we all know, Arthur was not destined to become King; frail and unhealthy, Arthur died shortly after the marriage and Katherine was left adrift in England for many years before her marriage to the then young, handsome and athletic Henry VIII.

Although there has been much debate surrounding whether or not Arthur and Katherine’s marriage was consummated, as was claimed by Henry during the divorce proceedings, Weir puts forward the idea, based on new and carefully evaluated evidence, that it was not so as Arthur was feared too unwell to perform – something I have always felt was highly likely.The rest of Katherine’s story, however, is much better known; years of failed pregnancies, the horror of the divorce and her replacement by Anne Boleyn, her separation from her daughter and years spent being moved from pillar to post until her death in 1536.

Yet what is spoken of somewhat less, and what Weir makes a great deal of in this novel, is the love between Katherine and Henry. We all know that Katherine was devoted to her husband, but what finds us less often in both historical fact and fiction is that Henry truly did love his first Queen; the need to secure the succession and the passionate love he developed for Anne eventually forced them to grow apart, but all evidence seems to suggest that for much of their marriage Katherine and Henry were happy. It is heartwarming to read something that shows this side of the relationship, though it makes it all the more heartbreaking to read of Katherine’s fall from grace, and the pain and ill health she was then to suffer. Weir truly makes the reader feel as if they know Katherine personally, and we grow very attached to her – an impressive feat to accomplish when writing about a real historical figure.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I am so excited to continue to read what promises to be a fantastic and brilliantly researched series.

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The Lost Tudor Princess by Alison Weir

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “Royal Tudor blood ran in her veins. Her mother was a Queen, her father an earl, and she herself was the granddaughter, niece, cousin and grandmother of monarchs. Some thought she should be queen of England. She ranked high at the court of her uncle, Henry VIII, and was lady of honour to five of his wives. Beautiful and tempestuous, she created scandal not just once, but twice, by falling in love with unsuitable men. Fortunately, the marriage arranged for her turned into a love match. Throughout her life her dynastic ties to two crowns proved hazardous. A born political intriguer, she was imprisoned in the Tower of London on three occasions, once under sentence of death. She helped to bring about one of the most notorious royal marriages of the sixteenth century, but it brought only tragedy. Her son and her husband were brutally murdered, and there were rumours that she herself was poisoned. She warred with two queen, Mary of Scotland and Elizabeth of England. A brave survivor, she was instrumental in securing the Stuart succession to the throne of England for her grandson.”

REVIEW: As many of you will know, Weir is one of my favourite historians and I have even had the good fortune to meet her and hear her give a talk on one of her previous books. Because of this, as well as because of the subject matter, I was extremely excited to read this book and have in fact been reading it since I got it at Christmas – blame final year of university for my unusually slow pace! As Weir herself states on numerous occasions, and as is made clear by the admiring tone of the blurb (which runs throughout this biography), Margaret Douglas was an extraordinary Tudor woman about whom very little has previously been written. She was related to many of the key figures of the age and played an integral role in history as we know it today, and after reading this book I am all the more upset to know that her story has remained so little known for so long. Margaret’s life was so full and rich with both scandal and heartbreak that it is difficult to summarise, but I shall attempt to do so in order to give you an idea of why this woman is so interesting and why, as Weir thankfully noticed, a biography of this kind has been a long time in coming. Margaret Douglas was the daughter of Margaret Tudor, Henry VIII’s sister, and was born a Princess of Scotland. Her mother fled with her to England, however, and it was in England that Margaret lived her life, though she maintained very close connections with Scotland. One of the most beautiful and intelligent women at Henry VIII’s court, Margaret caused scandals with her brilliant poetry and her passionate love affairs, two of which incurred the wrath of her Uncle Henry and both of which took place with members of the powerful Howard family. Margaret was eventually married to the Earl of Lennox and through this marriage maintained a high level of power in Scotland which she used on several occasions to attempt to influence different monarchs. She appears to have been a Catholic, despite accepting reforms, and was close to Mary I. Her relationship with Elizabeth was much rockier, particularly when she married her son, Darnley, to Mary, Queen of Scots, the most logical heir apparent to the English throne after the death of Elizabeth, which strengthened the claims of both Mary and Darnley. Although the son born of this marriage, James, would later become James VI of Scotland and James I of England, Margaret had to suffer the loss of her beloved son Darnley in a brutal murder that still remains unsolved. Several years prior to this her husband had also been brutally killed, and it seems that after these events Margaret was even more determined to play a political role. She came into conflict with both Mary and Elizabeth and cared for her young granddaughter, Arbella (who was yet another potential heir to the English throne) until her death. Margaret played a huge role in the shaping of English culture, court and politics (particularly in terms of the Elizabethan succession crisis) and appears to have been a truly amazing woman. Throughout this biography we get the real sense of a strong, intelligent and powerful woman who knows her worth and wishes it to be known to others. This is among my favourite Tudor biographies and I would highly encourage you all to read it.

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The Marriage Game by Alison Weir

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RATING: 4.5/5

BLURB: “Their affair is the scandal of Europe. Elizabeth Tudor proclaims herself the Virgin Queen but cannot resist her dashing but married Master of Horse, Lord Robert Dudley. Many believe them to be lovers, and there are scurrilous rumours that Elizabeth is no virgin at all. The formidable young Queen is regarded by most of Christendom as a bastard, a heretic and a usurper, yet many princes covet Tudor England and seek her hand in marriage. Under mounting pressure to take a husband, Elizabeth encourages their advances while trying to avoid commitment in a delicate, politically-fraught balancing act which becomes known as ‘the marriage game’. But treading this dangerous line with Robert Dudley, the son and grandson of traitors, could cost her her throne…”

REVIEW: A few weeks ago I went to see Alison Weir give a talk at the National Archives on this book, and hearing her views on the Elizabethan marriage game and the relationship between Elizabeth and Robert Dudley made me enjoy this book even more. Weir’s book explores the complexities of Elizabeth’s reign and the dilemmas she faced in regards to the problem of whether or not to marry and secure the succession, and her fears of ending up instead in thrall to a husband who would likely wish to control both her and her throne. She also places particular focus on the exact nature of the relationship between Elizabeth and Robert Dudley, which is still hotly debated by historians. The love, friendship and passion that exists between the couple is brilliantly written and remains believable throughout the novel, as do the many arguments they go through over Elizabeth’s refusal to appease her councillors and marry Robert himself. Elizabeth’s character is so vividly written that the reader can picture her clearly; she seems so alive that she almost jumps off of the page. Yet, despite the power that Elizabeth projects, the reader is introduced to a vulnerable side of her that many works of historical fiction often choose to ignore in fear that it will make Elizabeth seem weak – instead, Weir has used Elizabeth’s vulnerabilities to make her seem stronger, as the reader respects all that Elizabeth has gone through and how she has overcome such events. Weir explores both Elizabeth’s relationship with her mother and her controversial flirtation with Thomas Seymour, and uses both of these events to give Elizabeth a level of complexity that many other works of historical fiction are clearly lacking in. Although as this is a work of historical fiction there is some level of artistic licence involved, Weir has managed to cleverly weave these imagined scenes with famous pieces of Elizabethan history that many of us know and admire – for example, Elizabeth’s visit to Robert Dudley’s home at Kenilworth is well-documented, and Weir uses it as a setting for Robert’s last desperate attempt to get Elizabeth to be his bride. The book covers the entirety of Elizabeth’s reign, a vast amount of time to deal with in a book of less than five hundred pages, yet the reader does not feel as though they are left uninformed of any important or famous events, nor do we feel as though the story is rushed. The various suitors that offer Elizabeth their hand in marriage are presented in many different ways – some are clearly designed to amuse the reader, but others we develop a genuine affection for, like the Duke of Anjou. The deaths of her closest friends and advisors increase as the book goes on, and each of these are written so sensitively that we mourn alongside Elizabeth. Overall, this book gives the reader a true sense of who the real Elizabeth was and allows them to feel as though they have forged a connection with her – Weir’s writing allows us to not only follow Elizabeth on the journey of her reign but also to suffer her losses, celebrate her triumphs, and dither over her dilemmas. I would highly recommend this books as one of the rare gems of historical fiction that focus on the woman, rather than the Queen.